Eternity, Judgment, Heaven and Hell

Duration of Eternal Punishment

  In Matthew 25:46, Christ says of the wicked that "these shall go away into eternal punishment; but the righteous into eternal life," after having stated that he will say to the wicked, "Depart from me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels" (v.41) – hence, "eternal fire" for "eternal punishment," the duration of which is to be the same as "eternal life" for the righteous – which is everlasting of never-ending.

   But such a conclusion is challenged on the grounds (a) that "eternal" or "everlasting" does not necessarily mean "never-ending," with Sodom and Gomorrah "suffering the punishment of eternal fire" (Jude 7) being a case in point; (b) that "destruction" and "perishing" are descriptive of the punishment of the wicked in eternity, and these mean annihilation or ceasing to exist; and (c) that "death" ("the second death") is likewise descriptive of said punishment, which is the opposite of (d) "life." And thus means a cessation of conscious existence – for which reasons "eternal punishment" simply means punishment that reduces the wicked to a permanent state of unconsciousness and non-existence.

   However convincing such may sound at first, we submit that neither argument will stand the test of comprehensive examination.

   (a) The argument from Jude 7 is inconclusive. That passage states that Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities about them "are set forth as an example, suffering the punishment of eternal fire." And we do not know that those cities are not still visibly burning as described in Genesis 19. But Jude could have had reference to the punishment of their inhabitants after death – in the "lake of fire and brimstone, … tormented day and night for ever and ever" (Revelation 20:10). Or he could have had reference to the fact that the fire that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah was like the "eternal fire" is described in which the wicked are punished – namely "brimstone and fire" (Genesis 19:24) – which is more probable. In either event, Jude 7 cannot legitimately be used to prove that the eternal punishment of the wicked is not unending punishment!

   It is true, however, that the New Testament Greek noun aion and adjective aionios, the principle words for "eternal" in English translation, and their corresponding Old Testament Hebrew terms, may, and sometimes do, refer to an age or to age-lasting without designating the duration of the age, Also, the King James Version translates the adjective as "everlasting" 25 times and "eternal" 41 times, using them interchangeably and without distinction, whereas the American Standard Version always translates it "eternal," which will usually be done in this study.

   In the New Testament, the noun in its plural form is employed in the phrases "eternal purpose," literally, "purpose of the ages" (Ephesians 3:11) and "King eternal," literally "King of the ages" (1 Timothy 1:17) – indicating totality of the ages under consideration, which may either be (a) past (before the foundation of the world), (b) present (during the existence of the world, (c) future (after the end of the world), or else all combined ("from everlasting to everlasting," Psalm 90:2), said of God, "king of the ages," as per above, depending on context.

  The adjective is likewise used to describe duration – EITHER UNDEFINED but not endless (as in Romans 16:25, "kept in silence through times eternal"; 2 Timothy 1:9, "his own purpose and grace, which was given to us in Christ Jesus before times eternal"; and Titus 1:2 "in hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised before times eternal) – OR UNDEFINED because endless (as in Romans 16:26, "the commandment of the eternal God," and 66 OTHER PLACES IN THE NEW TESTAMENT -- the 25 and 41 times mentioned in the second paragraph above) – ITS PREDOMINANT MEANING.

The predominant meaning of aionios is seen in 2 Corinthians 4:18, where it contrast with proskairos, literally, "for a season," and is translated "temporal": "the things which are seen as temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal." It is used of persons or things which are in their nature endless, as "the eternal God" (Romans 16:26), his "honor and power eternal" (1 Timothy 5:16), and "his eternal glory" (1 Peter 5:10); of the Holy Spirit, "the eternal Spirit" (Hebrews 9:14); of the "eternal redemption" Christ achieved for us (Hebrews (9:12), and therefore "eternal salvation" (Hebrews 5:9), upon entrance "into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 1:11), of which "THERE SHALL BE NO END" (Luke 1:33).

Consequently, it is said that God "gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life" (John 3:16). Calling the resurrection body of the saints a house not made with hands, it is said to be "eternal, in the heavens" (2 Corinthians 5:1) – to be "incorruptible" and "immortal" (1 Corinthians 15:50-55) – that is, not subject to dissolution or death.

As explained by our Lord, "eternal life" is in "the worlds (age) to come" as distinguished from "this time," or "this world (age)." He promised his apostles for their sacrifices in serving him "a hundred-fold now in this time …; and in the world to come eternal Life" (Mark 10:30). He also explained that these two times or worlds (ages) are separated by the resurrection of the dead, as follows: "The sons of this world [age] marry, and are given in marriage; but they [the righteous] that are accounted worthy to attain to that world [age], and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry, nor are given in marriage: for neither can they die any more: for they are equal unto the angels; and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection" (Luke 20:34-36) – that is, the resurrection of the righteous – for there shall be a "resurrection of the just and the unjust" (Acts 24:15), and of the latter being unto "damnation" (John 5:28-29; King James Version).

 (b) It is also true that "destruction" and "perishing" are descriptive of the punishment of the wicked in eternity. But these terms do not necessarily mean annihilation or ceasing to exist – so that nonexistence rather than conscious existence and suffering is the eternal aspect of their punishment. But does it not seem incongruous to think of that which no longer exists as still being punished? How can that be? (But even the argument that eternal punishment means annihilation and nonexistence forever, is a tacit admission that the word "eternal" in this context means "unending"!)

The principle New Testament Greek word for "destroy" is apollumi in the active voice, translated "destroy" 23 times and "lose" 28 times, and for "perish" it is the same word in the middle voice, translated be "destroyed" 3 times, be "lost" 3 times, be "marred" 1 time, "die" 1 time and "perish" 33 times.

From these facts it can be seen why W. E. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words says of the above, "the idea is not extinction but ruin, loss, not of being, but of well-being." That will also explain how Job could say, "He hath destroyed me on every side" 19:10 King James Version), or, "He hath broken me down on every side," American Standard Version), and still be alive to speak of it. Also, the servants of Pharaoh implored him, saying with reference to the plagues upon Egypt because he would not let the Israelites leave to sacrifice to Jehovah, as Moses was insisting: "How long shall this man be a snare unto us? Let the men go, that they may serve Jehovah their God; knowest thou not yet that Egypt is destroyed? -- not annihilated, however!

One other word for "destruction" that is appropriate for our study is olethros in 2 Thessalonians 1:9. "who shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his might." Of this word, Thayer’s Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament says it means "ruin, destruction, death," and that in 2 Thessalonians 1:9 it is "the loss of life of blessedness after death, future misery, ainios [i.e., eternal future misery]." Also the "destruction" of this passage is said to be "eternal destruction from the face of the Lord and the glory of his might" – that is ultimate and eternal separation from the Lord, with its miseries.

(c) A similar argument is that "death" (or , second death) is likewise descriptive of punishment that reduces the wicked to a state of unconsciousness and nonexistence, because it is the opposite of life – and "the dead know not anything" (Ecclesiastes 9:5; see also v.9, King James Version). But this fails to take into account the fact that death is used in more senses than that of the body, and that it always involves a separation of one sort or another. Consider the following:

(1) It is said that the body without the spirit is dead and that in death the soul departs (James 2:26; Genesis 35: 18), but nowhere do the scriptures say the soul, or spirit, without the body is dead. To the contrary, in Matthew 20:32 Jesus called attention to the fact that long after the death of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God said, "I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob," and added that "God is not the God of the dead, but of the living" – which means that though their bodies were dead, their spirits were alive.

Also, though we read of the death and burial of Moses at 120 years of age in Deuteronomy 34:5-7, he and Elijah (who had been taken to heaven without experiencing death, 2 Kings 2:1-11) appeared at the transfiguration of Jesus (Matthew 17:1-7; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36) – without there being any evidence that Moses’ body had been raised from the dead. (David’s had not, Acts 2:29,34.) And the apostle Paul spoke of knowing a man in Christ fourteen years previous, caught up to the third heaven, "whether in the body, or apart from the body, I know not; God knoweth), … and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter" (2 Corinthians 12:2-4) – that is, still having his faculties in event he was "apart from the body."

Likewise, in Jesus’ account of the Rich Man and Lazarus, after death had ended their lives on earth (and the Rich Man was said specifically to have been buried), they still had conscious existence in another realm – one in comfort and the other in misery (Luke 16:19-31).

(2) The prodigal son, estranged from his family and living a sinful life, later repented, returned home, and was reconciled to his father, who then said of him that he "was dead and is alive again; and was lost, and is found" (Luke 15:11-32. He had not been dead physically, and evidently not lost physically – for his elder brother knew how he had been living.

(3) The apostle Paul said a widow "that giveth herself to pleasure [self-indulgence] is dead while she liveth" (1 Timothy 5:6). She was spiritually dead while physically alive – what Paul called "dead through your trespasses and sins" (Ephesians 2:1), and what Isaiah spoke of as estrangement from God, saying "your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, so that he will not hear you" (59:2).

From the foregoing considerations, it becomes obvious that Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament is correct in its definitions of the Greek word thanatos, translated "death," as follows (for the most part omitting his supporting evidences):

(1) Properly, the death of the body, i.e. that separation (whether natural or violent) of the soul from the body by which this life on earth is ended.

(This is the implied "first death" when reference is made to "the second death," as mentioned in c) below – one being the separation of the soul from the body, as just stated, which is not for ever, due to the resurrection; the other being the separation of both soul and body from the presence of the Lord in the lake of fire and brimstone, after the resurrection, which is for ever or eternal).

  (2) Metaphorically, the loss of that which alone is worthy of the name, i.e. the misery of the soul arising from sin, which begins on earth but lasts and increases after the death of the body.

  (3) The miserable state of the wicked dead in hell is called—now simply thanatos, Romans 1:32, distinguished from the death of the body, and called "the second death" (Revelation 2:11; 20:6,14; 21:8) as opposed to the former death, by which life on earth is ended.

  (4) In the widest sense, death comprises all the miseries arising from sin, as well physical death as the loss of a life consecrated to God and blessed in him on earth, to be followed by wretchedness in the lower world (opposed to eternal life). [That world includes Hades after physical death and Gehenna after the resurrection and judgment.]

  (Thayer states that thanatos seems to be used in Romans 5:12; (6:16,21,23; 7:24; 8:2,6; and that death in this sense is personified in Romans 5:14,17,21; 7:5. Others, however, he says, in all these passages, as well as those cited under definition a), understand physical death – to which we believe most of them are not limited, though Romans 5:12 may be, and some way may not include it.)

 (d) Finally, we note three New Testament Greek words translated "life" that need to be considered: pseuche, 40 times (also translated "soul" 56 times, "mind" 3 times and "heart" once(; zoe, 133 times; and bios, 5 times (also "living," 5 times, and "goods," or "good" in King James Version, once).

  (1) Pseuche is the inward entity, often used interchangeably with pneuma (spirit), referring to the "inward man" of 2 Corinthians 4:16 as contrasted with the "outward man" or body. It is referred to by Jesus in Matthew 10:28, saying, "And be not afraid of them that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: But rather fear him who is able to destroy soul and body in hell" – that is, gehenna, which he will do in regard to the unrighteous after the resurrection and judgment.

  (2) Bios is used in three respects: (a) of the period or duration of the life on earth, while body and soul or spirit are together (1 Peter 4:3, King James Version; Luke 8:14; 2 Timothy 2:4; (b) of the manner of life, in regard to moral conduct (1 Timothy 2:2; 1 John 2:16; and (c) of the means of life, livelihood, living (Mark 12:44; Luke 8:43; 1 John 3:17, where it is translated "goods" "American Standard Version), and "good" (King James Version).

  (3) Zoe, while frequently used interchangeably with pseuche, also has moral associations what are inseparable from it, as holiness and righteousness. Or, more precisely, while pseuche is the individual life or inward being, generally speaking zoe is the nobler term. In Acts 5:20 it is used in the expression "this Life" in reference to the quality of life produced by the preaching of the gospel, which begins in our lifetime on earth. And if pursued till the end of life on earth, it results in "eternal life" in the world to come" (Mark 10:30).

  It is always zoe that is used in the phrase "eternal life" (Matthew 19:16; 25:46; Mark 10:17,30; Luke 10:25; 189:18; John 3:15; 4:36,39; 6:54,68; 10:28; 12:25; 17:2,3; Acts 13:48; Romans 2:7; 5:21; 6:23; 1 Timothy 6:12; Titus 1:2; 3:7; I John 1:2; 2:25; 3:15; 5:11,13,20; Jude 21, (29 in number in the King James Version in common with the American Standard Version), besides the following in the American Standard Version where the King James Version has "everlasting life": Matthew 19:29; Luke 18:30; John 3:16,26; 4:14;5:24;6:27,40, 47: 12:50; 13:46 Romans 6:22 Galatians 6:8; 1 Timothy 1:16 (15 in number), making a total of 44 times).

  Sometimes reference is to "eternal life," or what eventuates in it, when only the word "life" is used. And again it is always zoe in such cases, as the following: Matthew 7:14; 18:18; 19:17; Mark 9:43,45; John 3:36b; 5:24c; 5:40; 10:10; 20:31.

  Interestingly, where the King James Version has "eternal Life" in 1 Timothy 6:19, the American Standard Version has "life which is life indeed," Based on a better attested Greek text, which has the word ontos, which means actually or really, and reads literally, "that they may lay hold on the really life" – the word for "life" being zoe.

  Another interesting and pertinent passage is John 11:25-26, quoting James as saying: "I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth on me, though he die, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth on me shall never die." – literally, the last phase is "shall not die into the age" (eis ton aiona) – that is, the eternal age, or age to come – hence, not die for ever. While "never" is the usual rendering in such a grammatical construction, some prefer the other in this context.

  If Jesus meant "shall never die," he had reference to dying spiritually. But if he had reference to dying physically, he was saying he would not stay dead but be raised from the dead (which the wicked will also be, but their resurrection is not under consideration since it will be to "damnation" or "second death"). And this alternate sense (of not dying for ever) harmonizes beautifully with the context. But whichever the Lord meant, the words "life" and "living" which occur in this text are the noun and verb forms of zoe, and if said zoe is not interrupted before physical death it eventuates in eternal life in the world to come, as previously indicated.

  By the same token, spiritual death in this world not interrupted by obedience to the gospel of Christ while the soul is still in the body (see 2 Corinthians 5:10), will result in the "second death" – in the lake of fire burning with brimstone, as already discussed – in which those cast "shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever" (eis tous ainoas ton aionon) (Revelation 20:10; cf. 14:11). THIS IS THE "ETERNAL PUNISHMENT" OF MATTHEW 25:46, WHICH IS DESCRIBED AS BEING OF THE SAME DURATION AS THE LIFE OF THE RIGHTEOUS – namely "ETERNAL".

Cecil N. Wright